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Editorial: The future of Sunderland AFC must be built on solidarity

The collective action of the global football community has saved the game from the oblivion of the Super League, and Sunderland fans know more than most just how important solidarity really is.

Arsenal fans protest against the European Super League
| Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

“Solidarity” is an intriguing word. It describes a state of physical and political organization, and it describes a feeling. ...Humans can achieve solidarity among themselves and between themselves and other beings because solidarity is the default affective environment of the top layer of the Earth’s crust.

Tim Morton, Humankind

What is it that defines our beautiful game?

Is it the relentless, myopic pursuit of self-interest by football club owners, sponsors, broadcasters, managers and coaches, players, and indeed fans; trusting the ruthless marketplace to magically produce fair results through the disinterested and invisible hand of competition, only guided by the whims of Randian supermen who control our destinies?

Or is the truth that it’s something deeper and more profound, something collective and ethereal, binding all of us together as part of an indivisible, symbiotic whole that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts?

Over the last week, the idea that football can remove itself from the rest of the world has been exploded once and for all. If this pandemic had not already demonstrated that the game is entirely and demonstrably intertwined with the social, political and environmental world in which it is situated, surely it has now. And if the value of collective action in solidarity with the interests of all isn’t now obvious to even the most cynical and world-weary supporter, then I doubt it ever will be.

The concept of solidarity implies inherent and unavoidable connections between things, the symbiosis that maintains complex systems. Some elements may be bigger or stronger, but no man, women, or football club is an island; the dividing lines between us are unclear, unstable, and permeable. Those at the top today may not be in the future, and visa versa.

The idea of trickledown - the permissive notion that if the rich are allowed to get richer, accumulate ever more power, and shape the world in their own dispassionate, “rational” image, then it will benefit everyone in the long-run - has been debunked in economics for well over a decade.

Yet, whether by political obfuscation, blame transference, lies and distraction, or simply institutional inertia, trickledown has continued to govern our economic relations in general, and by extension our beautiful game, almost by default - that is, up until this past seven days.

Leeds United v Manchester United - Premier League - Elland Road Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

In the abortive plans for a breakaway Super League, the fallacy, the selfishness, and weakness of that anemic, all-consuming economic model has now been exposed for the whole world to see. And it was exposed because the football community - a loosely defined and amorphous collection of ideas, individuals, collectives and institutions - came together in solidarity to oppose the unnatural and morally indefensible plan to sever those currently grazing at the top of the food chain from the rest of the ecosystem.

If solidarity is, as Morton argues, the “default affective environment” that we inhabit as a species, then it follows that it’s the default state of the football world too, and to go against it organically produces the kind of reflex reaction we’ve seen outside grounds, on phone-ins and on social media recently. When traditional clubs go bust, fans almost universally create phoenix clubs to take their place.

The game of Association Football has a definable, observable character of its own - a character that includes a strong notion of solidarity at its core - but its boundaries, like those of a human being or a heap of sand, are not clearly delineable. What is and is not considered football has changed over time. The shape of the game is different now to what it was when it was codified in the nineteenth century, or what it was in the inter-war period. But it remains recognisably the same thing, with the same essence, that was first played by leisure-starved factory workers and Corinthian public schoolboys in England, before being remixed for everyone to enjoy by various Scots, Hungarians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Italians, Germans, Ghanaians, Colombians, Mexicans and Americans.

Outlawing hacking, tweaks in the offside rule, the limited company and the socio clubs, the WM formation, Honvéd, the rise of Ultra groups, floodlights, Pele, Eusebio, Maradona and Cruyff, three points for a win, the manslaughter by negligence and classism of fans at Hillsborough, Heysel and Valley Parade, satellite TV, the back-pass rule, a black man captaining England, Jean-Marc Bosman asserting his rights as a worker, Marcello Bielsa, Arsenal Wenger and Jurgen Klopp, nutritional science and GPS analytics, openly LGBT+ footballers becoming global icons, VAR, a woman referring a men’s professional game.

All these things have happened and football remains both the same and remarkable different from when it was first codified, institutionalised and organised.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Doncaster Rovers’ manager Darren Moore and Sunderland manager Lee Johnson take to one knee in solidarity with the victims of racism before our match at the Stadium of Light in February.
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

This continuity is achieved because of the solidarity that necessarily exists between the constituent parts that make up the game; the game is for everyone, rules change for everyone (ahem, VAR), the grassroots feed and nurture the elites, who in turn provide resources to sustain the grassroots. Football continues only because of the symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships within it, and those between it and other things. It is substantial; it’s made up of stuff, both tangible and intangible, material and emotional.

Football is perhaps more than an ecosystem, it could be said to have some of the features of what Morton would describe as a hyperobject; something so vast that, as much as some might try, it is beyond human comprehension or control, spanning time and space, to which we have no choice but to respond, and within which and against which we situate and identify ourselves.

Hyperobjects are, according to this fantastic Guardian long-read on Morton’s philosophy, things “that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers”.

Sunderland Fans in Trafalgar Square
Sunderland fans rally together under banners and pyro in Trafalgar Square on May 25, 2019
Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images

Sunderland AFC as Solidarity Manifest

So, if some notion of football as solidarity is really real, if it’s what defines our sport and what links it to the rest of the world, it must also define our club as well as our city and the world-wide fanbase. How, then, should this realisation feed into the remaking of Sunderland AFC in the coming decade?

On Sunday morning, following the disappointment of our failure to achieve automatic promotion after the 3-3 draw with Accrington Stanley, their chairman, Andy Holt, a man I’ve interviewed and have a lot of time for despite not always agreeing with him (as you would expect from Europhile trade unionist and a Brexiteer boss), tweeted the following thread about his experience at the Stadium of Light:

Talking of big clubs, my visit to Sunderland AFC yesterday was my best ever away day. Their staff and directors treat us as equals, though we aren’t. They’re building something good up there listening to their plans and I am 100% certain they’re going to succeed.

They talk of having no right to promotion, of earning it and building a sound base so that when it’s achieved, it can continually be built on.

They’re going back to the Premier League, and damn well deserve their place in the Champions League, if they earn it. For all I know, they may be promoted this year and my only sadness is, if they do, I won’t get to visit this great club again in my tenure Accrington Stanley FC.

Fans need to be patient and back them. God speed.

That’s the solidarity of football right there, and solidarity is also that time at Accrington Stanley when the bars were offering free beers to Sunderland fans because the barrels would be out of date before the next home game. What Holt describes should be very encouraging to us, because solidarity is built on respect and recognition. Our club, under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, is demonstrating the tendency towards building the bonds of solidarity over narrow, short-term, extractive, cynical and destructive self-interest.

With the failure of the Super League demonstrating our power to act to prevent destructive change, confidence to act in solitary to make positive change has been boosted immeasurably. Solidarity is required to continually challenge of the spectre of racism and rise of the far-right online and in the real world of football, what has led Roker Report to join the club and rest of English football in boycotting social media next weekend in protest at the way racist underbelly of the game continues and the targeted abuse of black players goes largely unchecked on those platforms.

But this moment should also lead us towards introspection; Sunderland has no black coaches, no black directors, and there is very little racial diversity within Sunderland fan media or fan groups. Words, symbols, gestures, and actions all matter when we seek to pierce institutional discrimination and societal bigotry with the righteous sword of solidarity. Real, lasting change is achieved through hundreds and thousands of mini, often highly localised, acts of solidarity and revolution - often born of the cognitive dissonance that happens when reality doesn't conform to our values - that combine to transform how things actually work in practice.

Solidarity is a feeling and an action. We have all felt the bonds of it emerge spontaneously between ourselves and our fellow fans of all ages, genders, races and classes on the terraces at Roker Park and inside the Stadium of Light.

It’s been on show when Niall Quinn donated his testimonial game to children's charities. We’ve also felt when consoled by Charlton fans it upon leaving Wembley, or when Everton supporters took the brave little man, Bradley Lowery, to their hearts. We’ve lived it in raising money for the Soup kitchen, volunteering to collect food parcels or buying tickets for a game we cannot attend. We’ve organised around it in creating the Red & White Army Supporters Trust.

Everton v Sunderland - Premier League
Fans unite in solidarity with Bradley Lowrey during the Premier League match between Everton and Sunderland at Goodison Park on February 25, 2017
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland Together is a clever slogan, but it’s powerful because it represents who we are and the solidarity we live daily as fans, even as we remain unable to be together physically. Frank Styles’ murals are Sunderland AFC, Chris Commons’ notstalic bobble hat paintings are Sunderland AFC, so is the Foundation of Light, so is the Regional Talent Club, so is Mental Health hub. Cheeses of Nazereth on Twitter is Sunderland AFC, and so are the kids on YouTube.

Solidarity for Sunderland involves having a collective vision of the future that seeks to continually improve things and develop the club and the wider game beyond the narrow confines of one year’s balance sheet, or one season’s final league table. It involves an awareness of the interconnectedness that will sustain us as a football club into the future, and at the core of solidarity is a complex understanding of equality (i.e. not a bland “equality as sameness”, which we see in laissez-faire conceptions as “colour-blindness”, but in empathy with and understanding of the lives of others).

The immediate test of this solidarity for Sunderland AFC is to be found in our women's team. For 50 years, due to a pervasive patriarchy and unapologetic misogyny, women’s football teams and female footballers were not considered to be properly part of football. After the women’s game rose rapidly during the first world war, when crowds of 50,000 would watch Lily Parr and the Dick Kerr Ladies at Goodison Park, cod-science was concocted by the rich and powerful men who ran the game to justify explicitly banning women from using FA licensed grounds. Their underlying motive was to protect the interests, incomes and egos of men.

Sunderland Ladies have developed over the years from their roots as a 5-a-side team called the Kestrels in 1989, climbing the pyramid twice this century before being abandoned financially by Ellis Short and demoted by the FA. Having to rebuild from tier three in the midst of a global public health crisis and a tumultuous period for SAFC overall has been extraordinarily tough for a squad made up of college kids and skilled amateurs. They deserve the solidarity of the wider SAFC fanbase, and through RAWA we have ensured that the future of the Lasses have a standing agenda item when fans groups meet the club hierarchy, and Kristjaan Speakman’s commitment to work with Mel Reay and ensure that all the off-field support that is afforded to the men’s team is there for those in the women’s set-up is one that we will continue to reference ad nauseam.

#OneClubOurClub - This slogan needs to be realised by Sunderland AFC

This week, the FA announced that it will invite applications from the most successful clubs over the last two seasons in the Women's National League Premier Divisions, likely to be Sunderland from the north and Watford from the south, to join the Women’s Championship for next season. The combined weight of Sunderland fans and the club, acting in and demonstrating our solidarity with Reay and her squad, can be decisive in this process.

We need to demonstrate our commitment to women's football, in line with the fantastic new European Club Association’s Women’s Strategy, which is endorsed by UEFA’s Head of Women's Football Nadine Kessler. She has explicitly called for solidarity in the face of the Super League, and particularly the way they tacked-on a nebulous women’s competition - one that didn’t think to include European Champions Lyon - as an afterthought to their nefarious concoction.

Solidarity is tied to the idea that progress must benefit all through advancing those with the least power and wealth, so it is with the women’s game and even the masters of global capitalism totally get the logic of this. I recently caught a fascinating interview with the former head of global promotion for Coca-Cola, Ricardo Fort, on the Sport Unlocked podcast, which is worth quoting at length and its implications worth considering carefully by everyone with an interest in the future of football:

The thing with women’s sport is there’s great progress but it’s unevenly distributed. If you are investing in women’s sport, then your society is at a level that you’re paying attention to that it’s the right thing to, you’re not just trying to survive. ...I think FIFA and UEFA are paying attention, they are creating new competitions and doing more for women’s sport.

The piece that is missing for for me is just how these organisations share their revenues, because there is no shortage of money in football, it’s just not distributed well. So I don’t think it will be in a good place until all the federations are taking half of their revenues and putting it into women’s sport. Even if that’s not generating the same results as in men’s football, because that’s the price of running a federation today; you have to do what’s right.

The logic that most of them apply is old. The way that they look at it is “women’s football is not making as much money as men’s football” and yer, it’s not going to make as much money as men’s football for the foreseeable future. So as long as you look at the investment as related to income, you are never going to accelerate the growth of women’s sport. So you have to disproportionally invest, to take money from men’s football and put it into women’s football.

The problem is that most of these organisations are looking at that as either charity or a favour they’re making for women’s football, and that’s not the case. From a sponsor’s stand point, the organisations that are not allocating the money properly are going to start losing sponsorships, because for a sponsor, you cannot be associated with someone that privileges the men’s sport in detriment of the women’s sport. I know of several contracts with different companies that state “you have to invest our investment equally for men and women” and I think that’s going to start changing how federations and confederations start allocating their investments.

If this is true, then solidarity with the women’s game is an existential requirement for both Sunderland AFC as a famous old football institution that plans to exist in another 142 years time, as well as for English, European and global football in general.

Beyond saving the essence of the men’s game from the clutches of JP Morgan and the “Greedy Dozen” club owners, now must be the start of something much bigger and longer term; a reset that recognises the symbiotic relationships that exist within our teams, clubs, leagues, federation and confederations from the 5-a-side court to the FIFA General Secretary’s office.

Solidarity must remain at the core of what we do collectively as Sunderland fans, particularly through our collective action as part of the Supporters Trust. The UK Government’s fan-led review of Football Governance, chaired by the respected Tory MP Tracy Crouch, is the result of years of lobbying by the Football Supporters Association (FSA) what has resulted in the reform of football being included in both major Westminster parties’ 2019 election manifestos. The FSA and Football Supporters Europe are the embodiment of fan solidarity, and it is through these institutions that FIFA, UEFA, the FA, the Premier League, Women’s Super League, EFL and the government should be held to account.

How can we as individual Sunderland fans act in accordance with the solidarity we feel?

A few simple actions might be to post positively on social media or fan forums, not letting casual racism, sexism or homophobia slide when we’re watching the game in the pub or in the stands, coach a local grassroots side, take an interest in the women’s game, take part in fundraising drives, join and participate actively your local SAFC Branch, in the Red & White Army, and in the FSA. Buy shares in a small fan-owned club, attend non-league football matches, be an LGBT+ ally, invite a refugee to a Sunderland home match. Oh, and get ready to politely request that Louis-Dreyfus or the minority shareholders sell us a stake in our club so we can elect our own representative on the club’s board.

We can and should raise our voices when we see parts of football in trouble, be that a club being ripped apart by a dodgy owner, or a league cut short by a pandemic, or the extreme impacts of the climate crisis. To adapt an old maxim of the international trade union movement, “the fans, united, will never be defeated”.


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